Lessons from the Front: 3 Actual Play reviews.

As my review of Warhammer Fantasy 1e draws to a close and it’s descendant and vaguely german-sounding revenant loom on the Horizon, I figured I’d take a short moment to offer some insights gained from actually playing some of the shit I review on my blog. Without further ado, here goes.

Tower of the Stargazer (Lotfp); I was fucking right and it rocks. I have run Tower about 5 times now with different groups and widely differing results. In the main, the veritable treasure trove of weird shit, nonlinear exploration, that fucking shit-eating Uravulon Calcidius and the bizarre wizard encounters make this one a keeper. Getting to the treasure at the end can be a bit frustrating and requires careful reading and adjudication to make it work but in the end it can be solved. About half of the groups unleashed the wizard, one particularly unlucky group after they had already obtained the treasure. One group attacked and succesfully killed the Wizard, because grapple checks. I have nothing else to say. Awesome.

The Grinding Gear:  This one was a stinker to run. I was fucking wrong. The opening is sweet with an abandoned inn, ominous signs and those fucking stirges, but the adventure itself is structurally flawed and suffers from a kind of blandness. Resolving the adventure requires studious and careful observation but even my team (which contains one very diligent and careful mapper and note-taker) lost some of the clues because by that time they were several sessions in and it is ridiculous to expect people to remember seemingly trivial details (with a multitude of red herrings thrown in for good measure), 4 sessions later. Marathoning the bastard is not recommended, particularly the 2nd floor of the tomb is an excercise in frustration and tedium, resolved mostly by endlessly rolling for secret door checks. It is quite possible to arrive at the 2nd floor already hopelessly doomed by missing a single clue, which is not what DnD is about. The first floor is a crawl, but a satisfying one. By the end, my players were kind of sick of it, even though they fucking passed 3 out of 4 rooms with flying colours. Downgraded to a 5.
A slow, meticulous and peril-laden advance is one thing, banging your head against a wall until something gives is not. The screw-ball tension and fake vampire at the end is a nice twist, but I’m filing this one under “well-intentioned but flawed.”

Carcosa: I’ve run Carcosa for about 26 sessions now and ended up somewhere with a psychic level 5 specialist, a bunch of warriors, the odd sorcerer and a newly recovered robot spider. Zero rituals were used man, what am I doing wrong? Also the Octopotamus may be crossed off the list. Seriously though, running Carcosa was good fun but I found the overall pointlessness and high lethality to work to my disadvantage in sustaining a long-term game, although my players seemed to enjoy it a lot. Credit where it is due, the setting it evokes is still very interesting and I might revisit it at some distant point in the future. Points for improvement/my take on shit:

– Change the fucking psionic rules so the chance of getting psychic powers is increased five fold. Already covered this.
– Either grant additional abilities to Sorcerers or ensure that Sorcery becomes a central objective to the game (if, say, fortresses or villages have to be taken, either by trickery or by sorcery). Plan ahead and seed your game with hooks.
– The lovecraft artifacts are cool but the Space Alien tech is very bland and ultimately uninteresting. Replace with more artifacts from the Realms of Crawling Chaos or more Numenera-esque technology.
– Mundane equipment needs a sort of primer for Carcosa if you are going to use Lotfp. Figuring out what does or does not exist and whether you can buy something like a crossbow is unclear (and up to the GM I suppose). Preserve the atmosphere of nihilistic sword and planet horror and prevent equipment optimization wankathons, but let players prepare for an adventure and offer some bronze age goodies like poison (Lotus dust needs a gp price). Carcosa lacks adequate gold sinks (Sorcery?) and tiny villages won’t allow you to spend it on that much (maybe buy a house?). The gp system makes no sense but neither does anything else.
– For inspiration: Read a shitload of C.A Smith (Zothique, Hyperborea, Xiccarph). Then revisit Lovecraft, John Carter (do meth first), Moorcock (Hawkmoon 1-2 and Elric), Conan, Abraham Meritt and read the Storm comics by Don Lawrence (all the really fucking weird ones). Possibly some Vance too (Vance never hurts). Night Land helps. I still have not figured out how the fucking Voyage to Arcturus fits into all of this.
– Quests: Keep it simple, stupid. Local problems involving a sorcerer doing some crazy shit. Alternatively, somewhere is something valuable/powerful, you want it (or a Sorcerer doing some Crazy Shit is paying good money for it)! Add Carcosan Twist: The Something Is Cursed, Treachery by your Patron, The Quest is pointless or impossible, An endless horde of screaming, naked Jale cannibals pours forth to devour all that you cherish.
– Villains: I’d argue the proper way to make villains in Carcosa is to keep their motivation either simple and small (Greed, Vengeance, Lust for Power, Envy, Sadistic Cruelty etc.) or grandiose to the point of insanity. Madness or service to hideous Outer gods is of course an excellent driving force. Lovecraftian horrors have no comprehensible motivation and should be portrayed as such (carrying out seemingly insane or pointess goals with frightening intelligence).
– Characters. Don’t rely on Altruisim since your players are going to be dicks because most of the people they meet will be dicks. Cash, power and self-preservation are usually good bets for carrots/sticks. Throw in a trustworthy NPC every once in a while to prevent them from turning feral. Some sort of list with occupations or random attributes to help your players get embedded in this bizarre fucking setting is very recommended. Unless your players are widely read (they are not), try to get them to understand the general level of development and society.
– Knowledge. In a hexcrawl like Carcosa, knowledge is fucking important and one of the hardest things to come by and the random encounter clock is always ticking, meaning your characters get to fight a Shoggoth that day. Invocations are one of the best ways of getting knowledge. Enter the motherfucking Sorcerer.

Grade remains pretty much the same.

Next up: The Oldentaller Contract/Oldhammer Wrap-up. Then a short break from Warhammer games before we return with 2e and Zweihander.

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